Calls for Nationals Member for Gippsland Darren Chester to be disendorsed by the party have prompted the MP to take steps to change the way he consults with grassroots members.
Internal discontent with Mr Chester’s handling of the same-sex marriage issue escalated at a meeting of the Sale branch last Wednesday.
The Express understands a motion seeking Mr Chester’s disendorsement was moved and seconded, but then laid on the table and not voted on.
Mr Chester had earlier addressed the meeting on a range of issues including his decision to support same-sex marriage if allowed a conscience vote in Federal Parliament.
An unprecedented spotlight has since been shone on the internal workings of the usually tight-knit local Nationals after an article about the meeting was published by The Australian on Tuesday.
The article highlighted Mr Chester’s alleged behaviour at the branch meeting, stating he “lashed out” at members when debate “turned ugly” and “verbally attacked” them.
Since then, grassroots members who attended the meeting have spoken with The Express, each in a bid to put forward their account of what took place.
Some criticised Mr Chester’s behaviour at the meeting, while others viewed it as respectful discussion.
Of particular concern for one Sale branch member was Mr Chester’s exchange with a long-serving member of the party.
They described Mr Chester’s comments as “not measured” and “disrespectful” in an attempt to shut that person down.
The source said within the Sale branch there was a mixed view on same-sex marriage, but the majority of members were against it and members felt Mr Chester was “just doing his own thing”.
They said they believed if Mr Chester announced his position on same sex-marriage before his re-endorsement by the party for the 2016 election, somebody would have stood against him.
Fellow Sale branch member John Buxton agreed, saying Mr Chester had “burnt” his most loyal supporters.
“I put it to him (at the branch meeting) that the mistake he’s made is he’s burnt his most loyal supporters. He dismissed that as inconsequential,” Mr Buxton said.
“The message was the membership is not particularly important.”
State Member for Gippsland South Danny O’Brien said he was disappointed that an internal matter was being debated in the media, but “in the interest of accuracy” he believed the meeting was conducted fairly and Mr Chester’s behaviour was “respectful and considered”.
“Of course on this issue there was robust debate and discussion, but I think it was conducted respectfully and I reject the notion that it was at all heated,” Mr O’Brien said.
Another Sale branch member in attendance said Mr Chester did his best to answer difficult questions.
“He was respectful and everyone had an opportunity to have their say,” they said.
The source disputed the suggestion the majority of Sale members opposed same-sex marriage, saying there were at least as many people in the room who supported it as those opposed.
They said they believed the reason the motion was not put to a vote, was because those who moved and seconded it did not have enough support.
The Express understands branches cannot disendorse a standing member, but can request the matter be debated by the party’s state council, at which a vote of two thirds in favour would be needed for Mr Chester to be disendorsed.
Support for Chester
Mr Chester said while he understood the disendorsement motion was not voted on at the Sale meeting, he would not comment further on internal party process.
“However, I have received overwhelming support from other grassroots members across Gippsland in recent days, along with dozens of phone calls and emails from MPs, senior party officials and grassroots members across Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia,” Mr Chester said.
“There are some people who are opposed to my position on same-sex marriage, but I remain confident that I have the support of the majority of members to continue to represent Gippsland and the National Party to the best of my ability.
“I received the strong endorsement of Gippslanders at the last federal election because they wanted me to keep working hard on their behalf and not focus on internal party matters.”
Mr Chester described the meeting as a “respectful and courteous discussion” which lasted more than 90 minutes with members speaking strongly ‘for’ and ‘against’ the issue.
“Out of respect for members, I won’t reveal details of the debate and I’m disappointed that so-called ‘anonymous sources’ have leaked their own version of events to the media,” he said.
Mr Chester reiterated he had sought to discuss the same-sex marriage issue in a ‘respectful and moderate manner’ and he had met with church leaders, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage, party members and individuals as part of his consultation.
Mr Chester said since the meeting, he had written to the president of the Sale branch to propose a more structured approach to consultation on controversial issues to “help address concerns expressed by some members”.
“Under the Party Rules, there is no formal process an MP must take on controversial issues, particularly those pertaining to a conscience vote,” Mr Chester said.
“While there was plenty of opportunity for branch members and all Gippslanders to have their say on this issue – and they did – I’m proposing to take that a step further in the future with a mutually agreed process.”
Nationals members from outside the Sale branch have moved to argue that the disendorsement push is not representative of the broader membership’s feelings about Mr Chester.
One senior party member said there were diverse views on same-sex marriage within their branch and they believed this was indicative of the whole party membership.
“We respect Darren for his views, we respect him as a great local member,” they said.
“He’s come to those decisions because he believes he’s truly representative of his constituents.
“I don’t see (his support for same-sex marriage) as a huge deal-breaker in regards to support from our members.”
Another party member from within the seat of Gippsland described the disendorsement idea as “preposterous”.
“I think if you weigh up other decisions he’s made for the community, they’d far outweigh this decision,” the source said.
“The sad thing about all this is this sort of speculation is unfamiliar territory for the Nats.
“We’re generally very good at getting things done behind closed doors and getting issues resolved behind closed doors.”